DCFS reports growing shortage of investigative capacity as caseloads skyrocket
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services is reporting a growing lack of investigative muscle needed to grapple with skyrocketing caseloads.
That means investigators are expected to take on more cases to keep up with the burgeoning caseloads.
This comes as more information is becoming available about the agency's involvement in the life of 8-year-old Navin Jones. DCFS checked in with Jones and his family in Peoria just a month before he died. Investigators at the time noted Jones was "sickly" in appearance, but his low weight was attributed to a possible medical issue rather than abuse.
DCFS was working to grant Jones' parents short-term guardianship to allow them to take him to a doctor for examination. The department was waiting for Jones' parents to sign paperwork to obtain guardianship on the day of his death.
His parents, Stephanie Jones and Brandon Walker of Peoria, are now charged with first-degree murder in connection with his death. Peoria County Coroner Jamie Harwood has called the case one of the worst abuse cases he's ever seen.
Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert said in his view, DCFS was derelict on its responsibilities in attempting to return custody of Navin Jones and his older sibling to their biological parents, despite a Tazewell County judge's 2017 order granting legal custody of the children to their paternal grandmother.
"This is an incredibly serious case, and DCFS, even if they think that somehow with all these facts, the best outcome is for the children to go back home, what you're supposed to do was bring it to the judge who ordered that the children cannot safely live at home, and make your case before that judge," he said. "But they were trying to do it through legal documents outside of court, to bypass the court. It's just so outrageous."
DCFS is required to file an annual report on its plans to address investigator caseloads with a federal judge in Chicago as part of the latest extension on 30-year-old B.H. consent decree. Under that decree, DCFS is required to whittle down investigator vacancies to six percent by March 2024.
In a March 31 filing with the court, DCFS reported an investigator vacancy rate of 21.2%. That's up from 8.8% this time last year.
Golbert, a DCFS critic, said the agency's sluggish response to the ongoing staffing shortfalls leads to deadly consequences - for children and investigators alike.
Since December 2021, Golbert said five kids involved with DCFS died at home with their families. A DCFS investigator was also killed on the job in January.
"It should really come as no surprise that children and investigators alike are at risk of harm when DCFS' investigator vacancy rate is so out of control and just getting worse in an explosive way."
DCFS actually reported a net gain of 12 investigators to its workforce since March 2021, but the agency also noted the average number of cases soared from 6,535 to 7,726 over the same timespan. That's led to a spike in the statewide rolling vacancy percentage for investigators, as additional employees are required to take on the new cases in order to maintain reasonable individual caseworker workloads.
Golbert said that argument doesn't hold much water with him.
"Every year, DCFS has an excuse de jure. No more excuses. DCFS has to fix this, or we'll continue to see children and caseworkers alike continue to be at risk of serious harm and even death," he said.
In its report to U.S. District Court Judge Jorge Alonso, DCFS acknowledged it failed to meet its investigator caseload goals for the past year, but highlighted the "aggressive" hiring, recruitment, and retention efforts the department is making to rectify the problem.
That includes cutting the onboarding time for new investigators from six months to 60 days, extending recruiting efforts to neighboring states, and more than tripling the size of the DCFS recruitment staff, from two to seven employees.
The department is also using so-called "temporary assignments" to fill gaps at certain sites. That includes former investigators or people working in other positions in the agency who volunteer for a six-week stint working investigations.
The department currently has 650 investigators statewide.
Golbert said in his view, the solution to DCFS' chronic staffing issues is simple: raise salaries.
"They're very important jobs. They're very high stress jobs. You need people who are able to make good judgments. You need people with child welfare and risk assessment credentials. And it's also a tight job market right now, and so you have to pay what the market needs," he said. "And DCFS has refused to do that for years and years and years."
Bill McCaffrey, a DCFS spokesman, said the department hired 388 new staff this fiscal year, and 496 the previous fiscal year. He said overall, DCFS is reporting its highest overall headcounts in more than a decade.
“Under the current administration, DCFS has made considerable progress in its recruitment, hiring and retention of investigators, as well as using short-term support strategies to address the increased reports of abuse and neglect," said McCaffrey in a prepared statement. "The Department’s progress was made in the face of challenges that included the COVID-19 pandemic, a nationwide hiring crisis that has impacted the child welfare sector, and a significant rise in the total number of investigations statewide.”
In the March 31 court filing, DCFS said it will look to implement new retention strategies for child protection supervisors, and hire on social service aides to assist investigators in some aspects of their work.